Aging adults overcome technology challenges

Library Partnership Branch Manager Tina Bushnell (left) shows Alfred Campbell, Sr. how to plug in a USB mouse for his laptop.
Library Partnership Branch Manager Tina Bushnell (left) shows Alfred Campbell, Sr. how to plug in a USB mouse for his laptop.
Photo by Seth Johnson

Christina Gilman just recently took up residence in Florida. She joined a writer’s critique group affiliated with the Writers Alliance of Gainesville and is still challenged by dealing with Dropbox, the online tool writers use to share documents with each other.  

She is also a counselor with a doctorate in psychology who gets together with a small group of women to discuss “saging while aging.” One of the topics on her agenda is technology. 

Gilman says she calls her technophobia “techie tantrums.”  

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“Sometimes I want to throw the computer out window. I have a resistance and dislike for technology but I’m also dependent on it. I’m trying to work with that resistance,” said Gilman, who prefers not to give her age.

A technology gap divides older generations—who grew up in a computer-free world—and younger generations who have been born into a digitally driven life. But according to researchers that gap is lessening. 

Last year the Pew Research Center released survey results that showed 96 percent of those between 18 and 29 years old owned a smartphone compared with 61 percent of those 65 and older. That gap has decreased since 2012.  

“There is still a digital divide, especially between the oldest-old (age 75 and older) and younger populations.  However, this divide is steadily narrowing as older persons increasingly become aware of the potential of gerontechnology solutions to age optimally,” said Stephen Golant, an aging expert at the University of Florida and author of the book “Aging in the Right Place.”  

“Gerontechnology solutions—the intersection of technology and aging—embrace existing and developing technologies that can address older persons' needs and wants, enabling them to age optimally,” Golant said.  

Helping to bring about the changes are the entrepreneurs and researchers who are giving us the chance to be “smarter” by demonstrating just how much a smart device can help. 

“It is the adopter syndrome,” said Todd M. Manini, a professor at UF’s Institute on Aging. “You tend to see older adults adopt technology a little bit later than younger adults.” 

Correspondent Ronnie Lovler takes a virtual trip to Mount Everest.
Photo by Chrissy Smoak Correspondent Ronnie Lovler takes a virtual trip to Mount Everest.

That’s especially true for smartwatches, something Manini said he hopes will change. He heads up a research project on clinical and population health integration at the Institute on Aging. 

He said the next stage of the Remote Online Assessment and Mobility Monitor (ROAMM) is to determine how smart watches working in conjunction with the ROAMM app can monitor an older adult’s health.  

“We want to use smartwatches to understand the experiences of older adults who have recurring health events in their lives, and we want to know how people recover and bounce back,” he said. “This is a key device that could serve us in the remote health world. It could also serve us about aging in place.” 

Participants in the upcoming stage of the study, which will begin later this year, must be at least 65 and have a history of falling. Researchers will ask them to use the watch for about a year. 

“If we had information about your health where you don’t have to come to the medical system, and [we] use this information about some symptoms that might cause some issues, we can potentially identify those issues prior to [a health] event,” Manini said. “People can wear devices and stay at home.” 

That would be a huge achievement.  

“That is the holy grail of the future, and I think a lot of people want to go that way,” Manini said. 

But despite the advances in smart technology, many experts still believe more needs to be done in terms of health and health care. Nirav R. Shah, a senior scholar at the Clinical Excellence Research Center at Stanford University, said new and promising technologies will make it easier for people to age at home.  

One effort uses a system of cameras to keep an eye on a person round the clock. To make it less intrusive, Shah said, the monitoring is done by using stick figures to replace the face and body of the actual individual receiving care. She said people are willing to give up privacy in exchange for independence.  

“They actually don’t care,” Shah said. “Knowing that a daughter feels comfortable with this [system] makes it work. It’s ambient. This has caught elder abuse, fires, falls and many other things.”  

Haydee Britton of Santa Fe College shows off her smart devices that she never leaves home without.
Photo by Ronnie Lovler Haydee Britton of Santa Fe College shows off her smart devices that she never leaves home without.

Apps like FaceTime, Skype and Zoom have also become important tools to keep people in touch with their friends, family, and business associates during the pandemic.  

Chrissy Smoak, life enrichment activities manager at Oak Hammock, said when the facility was in the COVID lockdown, she helped residents and patients visit virtually with spouses, sons, daughters, grandchildren, and others throughout that period of isolation.

“The biggest boom was during COVID,” she said. “It was the ability to connect the residents with their loved ones when they were not able to see them and be face-to-face with them because of isolation.”  

But smart devices can also be fun. One popular activity at Oak Hammock is taking turns with a virtual reality tool called Rendever, which lets people “travel” to favorite sites or places by donning a special set of glasses that connect to a device.  

“We have the ability to take residents all over the world,” Smoak said. “We have an array of individuals here who have been past travelers and a lot of them do not have the ability anymore and [Rendever] is one of their favorite pastimes.”  

Smoak said it was a way for Oak Hammock residents to fulfill trips on their bucket list in a safe and comfortable way. One of the trips allows residents to visit Mt. Everest—a place likely unreachable for most residents. The spectacular view offers ice-capped mountains in the distance that provided a sense of the altitude and how difficult it would be to make the climb. 

While entrepreneurs and researchers focus on more “smart” development that may help people live longer and happier lives, some older people still need to catch up their technology skills. More community organizations are reaching out to teach basic computer skills to adults, including the Alachua County Library District (ACLD). 

Courtesy of UF A view of the smart watch used in the UF ROAMM study. Those interested in participating in the study can call 352-273-5919 or email recruit@aging.ufl.edu.

“Recently we restarted one-on-one computer help appointments so that any patron can make an appointment and they can come in with whatever it is that they need help with,” said 

Barbara Hughey Reardon, literacy coordinator at ACLD headquarters 

The sessions are available every Tuesday. The library has access to the North Star Digital Literacy program, which helps those without computer skills get started. 

“For someone who is absolutely at the beginning stages of getting acquainted with a computer, we’re there to help them until they feel comfortable,” she said. 

At the Library Partnership, two people showed up recently for a computer class with branch manager Tina Bushnell. Alford Campbell Sr., 70, was there to learn the basics; Muriel Whymes, 72, wanted to find out how she could sell items online. 

“I was afraid of using computers because I thought it would put too many people in my personal business,” Campbell said. “I see now that even older people need to learn a computer... I’m just sorry it took me so long to make my mind up.” 

Whymes said she was there to learn.  

“Either you stay behind, or you get on a horse and try to ride,” she said. “I went to college, so I had to do some research papers, but beyond that, I’m naïve.”  

Bushnell said the library system seeks to assess a patron’s needs and work from there. 

“We offer a basic computer program class because we see, daily, how the digital divide affects patrons who do not have computer skills to manage some of the basic needs in their lives,” she said. “People use the computers at the library to create resumes, apply for jobs or assistance, to set up email accounts, to download and print documents, and many other tasks. Tasks that those with higher level skills may take for granted." 

At Santa Fe College, the Displaced Homemaker program offers educational assistance and additional support to people, primarily women, who are transitioning into employment after working primarily in the home.  

Coordinator JoAnn Wilkes has been at the center for 22 years and is herself a graduate of the program.  

“We have our own stand-alone, three-week class that we teach with life management skills, employability skills and a week of computer skills,” she said. “The computer skills are repeatable until they feel comfortable.” 

Wilkes said providing computer skills is essential.  

“Even thinking about sometimes getting in touch with your doctor, they want you to go into MyChart, they want you to sign in, they want you to do all of these things on a computer,” she said. “If they have computer skills, they can contact their doctor that way.”  

Photo by Seth Johnson Muriel Whymes (right) shows Library Partnership Branch Manager Tina Bushnell (left) how far she's progressed in the material.

Wilkes said the program now has a new project and will begin offering a free computer class on Tuesdays starting in April at the Senior Recreation Center. The classes will be monthly to start, but the program may pick up the pace if warranted. The center offered computer classes regularly before the pandemic, and a computer lab is available for members to use Monday through Friday.  

But while some adults are still playing catch-up learning how to use basic technology, other older adults have embraced “smart” technology. An ebullient Haydee Britton, 72, who teaches medical English at Santa Fe is an adopter.  

“I have here a contraption on my wrist, kind of like a watch, and if I press the button the police and fire department will be here in five minutes. I also carry a GPS device with me all the time,” she said, showing off her devices.  

Britton was attending a gathering of the Alliance Francaise de Gainesville (AFG) with chronological peers whose lifestyles made them technology adopters. AFG President Elizabeth Ziffer said she “loves the Bluetooth connection between my car and speaker system. I love talking hands free and having those conversations we don’t have time to have in person.” 

Helene Hammer, a yoga instructor in her 60s, has her own website.  

“Every time I get into a glitch, I go to Google and look up how to fix it, or I talk with the tech reps from the company,” Hammer said. “I’ve had some very frustrating experiences, but right now all is good.” 

Editor’s note: This is the sixth story in Mainstreet’s Aging Matters series. It was independently reported by Ronnie Lovler and underwritten by Elder Options. Some reporting was made possible by Lovler’s acceptance as a fellow into the 2022 Age Boom Academy, a program of the Columbia Journalism School, the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.   

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